US may struggle with quantum export controls

While the US has valid concerns about restricting China's access, the newness of the quantum technology may make it hard to put controls in place.

The extraordinary potential of quantum computing makes it one of the hottest areas in tech today.

Quantum computing ramps up performance by exploiting the fact that qubits can exist in more than one state at once, rather than the 0 or 1 of classical computer bits. As a result, quantum computers can perform calculations vastly more efficiently, and can be scaled up exponentially.

The applications are endless - but two crucial fields are attracting particular attention: cyber security and defense.

While most encryption today isn't, in theory, uncrackable, it relies on the fact that breaking it would take an unfeasible length of time. And while current quantum technology hasn't yet reached the point where it can speed up the process enough to make it practicable, it looks very much as if this is just a matter of time.

Secure communications, of course, are vital to the armed forces. But quantum computing has a wide range of military applications beyond this. Quantum sensing, in particular, has the potential to enable positioning, navigation, and timing where GPS is unavailable, as well as having applications in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The US is determined not to fall behind.

The quantum race

In a recent report, the Rand Corporation concluded that the US was the current world leader in most quantum technologies, with technical capability in quantum computing and sensing, though not in quantum communications.

Chinese capabilities are harder to assess given the secretive nature of much of the work being done, but are believed to include the technical capability in quantum communications. A year ago, meanwhile, China unveiled the world's fastest programmable quantum computer.

And according to a McKinsey report, the country has committed to spending a whopping $15 billion on quantum research, twice the investment of the US and EU.

Export controls in the pipeline

As a result, according to reports, the White House is considering new controls on exports of quantum computing equipment (as well as AI technology) to China.

When asked last week whether this was the case, undersecretary for industry and security Alan Estevez commented, "If I was a betting person, I would put down money on that."

The proposed controls could apply to materials, isotopes, and fabrication techniques for quantum devices, post-quantum cryptography, and the technologies involved in quantum sensing and networking. However, this may be easier said than done.

Potential dangers

Talks over export controls of quantum technologies have already been going on for years, partly because of the number of bodies involved in the decision, from the Commerce, Defense, Energy and State Departments to the National Security Agency (NSA).

And drawing up the details won't be easy. Because quantum technology is still in its infancy, it's hard to define exactly which products should be restricted.

There could, for example, be controls on the number of qubits a machine could process - except that it might be possible to chain more than one quantum computer together. Meanwhile, error-correction software could turn out to be crucial to machines' operation, possibly making it the most important technology of all.

There's also a danger that badly-crafted export controls could hamper the US industry by making international cooperation more difficult for the US. US controls on semiconductors, for example, have largely failed to prevent shell companies from supplying to China while interfering with the US' own deals.

Meanwhile, many products used in quantum computing are used in other areas, too, meaning that restrictions could damage other industries in the US.

The Rand Corporation makes a number of recommendations about how the US can nurture its own quantum research and manufacture - but specifically warns against imposing export controls on quantum computers or quantum communications systems at this time.

Instead, it says, the government should monitor the international flows of key elements of the industrial base, such as critical components and materials, skilled workers, and final quantum technology products - while continuing to provide a broad base of government R&D support.

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